Striving to be the best might sound like a positive, right? But it's sending the nation into a tailspin. It's time we all let go, reports Clare Thorp...
When a text alerted Natasha Eden to some suspicious activity in her garden at 1am, her worried neighbours told her that they thought she was being burgled.‘Actually, it was me out there,’ she says. ‘I was cutting some roses to go on top of a cake.’
Despite a long day at her job as head of marketing for a large financial services company, followed by a work event that went on until late, she’d then remembered she still had a cake to decorate for a colleague’s birthday, and she wanted it to look perfect – even if that meant a spot of midnight gardening. ‘I defi nitely think of myself as a perfectionist,’ Natasha, 33, explains.
They say no one’s perfect. But more of us are trying to be. A recent study found that four out of fi ve women think they push themselves too hard to be perfect, with 80% still feeling like they’re not good enough. From excelling in our careers and planning a dream weddingto curating the perfect work wardrobe, many of us want to excel at it all.
But while ‘perfect’ sounds like a compliment, recent research by York St John University and the University of Bath found that perfectionism is a destructive trait that can lead to chronic exhaustion and stress. The pressure many of us put on ourselves to tick all the boxes is taking its
toll. Nearly half of us describe ourselves as moderately or extremely stressed – with four out of 10 women near burnout.
‘The problem with perfection is you never get there,’ explains psychologist Dr Simon Whalley from The House Partnership, which treats many patients suffering from stress burnout – often caused by setting themselves excessively high standards. Terri Simpkins, head of the leadership and management department at Anglia Ruskin University, agrees. ‘You’re never going to tick all the boxes because the goal keeps moving,’ she says. ‘Perfectionism is often a self-imposed set of criteria – and women measure themselves much more harshly than men do. Now, it’s exacerbated by social media. We’re stacking ourselves against other people’s highlight reels.’
Natasha is aware that the pressure she feels to be perfect comes mainly from herself. ‘I’m lucky that I love my job and I’ve got a good home life, but I put a lot more pressure on myself than others do,’ she says. ‘A lot of it is about not wanting to let people down – but without ever finding out what they expect from me.’
At work, that means not switching her laptop off until she’s replied to every email in her inbox. ‘I don’t like to have anything unanswered at the end of the day – but no one has told me I need to do that.’
And her perfectionism isn’t saved for the workplace. ‘If a friend is coming over for dinner, I’ll want to cook from scratch,’ she says. ‘I think it reflects on you as a person. I worry about what people think of me.’
Then there’s the pressure to have ‘perfect’ experiences in our free time – from securing tickets to the must-see play or planning a mini-break to make our Instagram followers drool. ‘My husband and I had an amazing holiday to Costa Rica in March,’ says Natasha. ‘But when we came back, I spoke to someone who’d just been to Vietnam and started thinking we should have gone there instead.’
By constantly striving to experience and be the best, experts say we’re squeezing the joy from our lives. ‘It’s hard to be in the here and now when you’re a perfectionist,’ says Dr Whalley. ‘They are often people pleasers who feel responsible for everyone else having fun at a party.’ It can have an impact on your health, too: constantly striving for perfection can lead to anxiety and depression – with early signs including trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, anger issues, problems in relationships and an inability to enjoy things you used to love.
At work, perfectionists often sell themselves short by procrastinating. ‘The idea of doing something that’s not perfect provokes anxiety, so they put things off,’ says Whalley. ‘They either want to do it perfectly or not at all.’
This fear of failure can stop them fulfilling their potential says Simpkins. ‘There’s a mentality of, “If I can’t win, I’m not going to play,”’ she explains. ‘But failure is a natural part of life.’ The need to be perfect holds many women back at work, too. ‘They don’t go for promotions because they don’t think they’ll do a good enough job and don’t want that anxiety,’ she says.
The stifling effect on creativity is an issue some companies are trying to address. Google now has a lab, called Google X, where employees are rewarded for ideas, no matter how bad, to encourage innovation.
The most important thing then, when it comes to striving for perfection, istaking a step back and recognising your obsessions before they go too far.
For many of the clients that Whalley treats for anxiety, perfectionism is a root cause. So he helps them rediscover happiness by encouraging them to address it by setting tasks, like completing a piece of work quickly without checking it over and over. ‘It’s about realising that you can do something that’s just OK,’ he explains, ‘and introducing flexibility into their life.’
For Natasha, it was about breaking the negative pattern. She booked into a holistic yoga retreat in Ibiza called Just Stop! which specialises in helping stressedout people find solutions, and she says it’s transformed her thinking. ‘A lot of it was about challenging the “should” in our sentences,’ she says. Old habits die hard, though. ‘When I was there I said: “I’m going to start doing yoga every day”, and my teacher pointed out I was falling into the same pattern.’ The experience was an important step towards realising that her desire to be perfect was hindering, rather than helping, her happiness. ‘It was beginning to creep into everything,’ she adds. ‘The enjoyment had gone out of a lot of things I used to love doing. You become not a very nice person.’
Recognising this and taking a break from her routine, Natasha’s now realised it’s OK if everything isn’t amazing all the time. ‘I’m learning to relax more – if I don’t have time to make dinner, we can just order a pizza instead. If the bar I choose isn’t great, I can still have a laugh because I’m with my friends. The world isn’t going to end!’